Saint Louis University Law Journal
Recently, unusual “factories” have appeared in Third World countries; these factories do not manufacture goods, but instead feature computer workers, typing and clicking away, playing video games, collecting coins and swords, and fighting monsters. Known as “gold farmers,” these workers are paid to harvest virtual treasures for online gamers in the developed world. First World gamers want to advance quickly within their online role-paying games of choice and, tired of the repetitive tasks necessary to build a high-level character, would prefer to pay others to do the work. As a result, gold farming operations have appeared in many countries where labor costs are comparatively low. For example, several years ago, a company named Blacksnow opened operations in Tijuana, Mexico, paying Mexican nationals dollars a day to kill dragons and obtain objects in Mythic Entertainment’s online Camelot game. Acting as an intermediary, Blacksnow later resold these virtual objects on eBay and other online exchange sites to high bidders in First World countries. A second method using relative differences in wages is to have Third World computer workers “play” the characters of First World gamers while they sleep. Because in-game objects have a “real world” monetary value, workers in Third World countries are often playing online games not as entertainment, but to make a living.
Gold farming, however, is only one part of a larger phenomenon. A growing number of people worldwide entertain themselves or supplement their incomes—or both—by working within virtual worlds such as Second Life or casually “clicking” to make a few dollars for simple tasks on websites like Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk. One economist, Edward Castronova, has estimated that the economy of Sony’s game EverQuest and its world, Norrath, has a GNP per capita equivalent to Bulgaria. Professor Richard Heeks has gathered several estimates of the economic value of gold farming, with some extrapolation from existing research. In numerous worlds, workers hold various jobs that make it possible to “work in a fantasy world to pay rent in reality.”
In addition to work in virtual worlds, we are also seeing the rise of crowdsourcing and clickworking, in which complicated tasks are broken down and distributed to thousands of workers throughout cyberspace, then later consolidated into a finished product. In other writing, I have used the term “virtual work” as an umbrella phrase to encompass work in virtual worlds, crowdsourcing, clickworking, even encompassing, to some degree, the commonplace telecommuting and “mobile executives” that have become ubiquitous over the past decade. These developments have profound implications for the future of labor and employment law, and interestingly, none of this work is constrained by traditional nation–state borders.